Some Things You Don’t Get Back

HotelOne of my most revelatory professional discoveries is also stupidly simple.  It’s this, courtesy of Bob Probst: Reading is a selfish venture.

It is. Of course it is. I’m disappointed in myself for not realizing it earlier, because it’s a principle – probably one of the top two or three – that guides my work with pre-service English teachers, and it would’ve transformed the way I taught English in high school.  I was reminded of the selfishness of the reading enterprise as I made my way through John Irving’s The Hotel New Hampshire, more on which in a couple minutes.

Here’s why it’s important to consider the solipsistic nature of reading, especially for the teachers in my audience.  We read, let’s say 99% of the time, for our own reasons and purposes.  We certainly do this when we read for pleasure, but even professional reading is done for specific personal reasons.  I pick up a novel to get lost in the characters, to savor the author’s use of language, to find myself carried along by plot and conflict; when I conduct research for an article I’m writing, my personal reasons look very different, but the act of scouring journals and other texts for salient information is also highly personal, and how it looks depends on what I’m writing.  In both cases, I’m reading for my reasons, and this holds true for just about everyone, no matter what they read.

School is the only place where people are regularly called on to read for external reasons over which they have no control.  They want to score well on the quiz, write the paper, contribute to the discussion – and the parameters for success on all those activities are probably set by the teacher.   In my experience, students are rarely encouraged to read for their own purposes, which is a direct contradiction of the way people read in the world outside of and beyond school.  We read what interests us – or, if we’re not sure if something interests us, we bring our own experience and knowledge to bear on the text in an effort to make meaning of it.

And so it was for me with The Hotel New Hampshire.

(As a side note, this is, of course, where the Common Core State Standards get reading completely wrong.  In the English standards’  slavish adherence to “the four corners of the page” and standards author David Coleman’s desire that students not access  their prior knowledge and history – essentially asking students to come to the text as a blank slate, which precisely no one ever does – the selfish aspect of reading is left entirely out of the equation.  By focusing completely on providing textual evidence for whatever superficial task the teacher has mandated, student choice is eliminated completely.  We’re asking students to read in complete defiance of what we know about how people read, which means most of the reading tasks they’re asked to complete in school are completely artificial, and with very little transfer to the way we read outside of school. It’s asinine.)

Back to The Hotel New Hampshire, and from here on in I tread lightly.

I enjoyed the book, but it’s problematic for a lot of reasons, touching as it does on anti-Semitism, adolescent sexuality, incest, prostitution, terrorism, and rape, all while somehow being laugh-out-loud funny. It details the exploits of the Berry family – mainly father Win and his children Frank, Franny, John (who narrates the book), and Lily – and the three hotels they own (in New Hampshire, Vienna, and Maine) over the course of twentyish years.  The last item in that lengthy list of the book’s sensitive subjects hangs over everything after Franny is raped in high school by several boys, and it’s tempting to read it as the catalyst for much of what develops later between her and John.

The interesting thing – and what prompted me to think carefully about the inherent selfishness of reading – is how I homed in on Franny’s rape as the book’s defining event even though it isn’t really about rape or misogyny or even, broadly, gender politics.  It’s certainly part of the book’s tapestry, but if I said this was a book about rape, I’d be lying.

And yet.

The treatment of women in our culture has been on my mind lately due to the recent video of the woman being sexually harassed on the streets of New York and the misogynist cowards behind Gamergate and the threats levied against critic Anita Sarkeesian and the necessity of #YesAllWomen.   It’s the Hobby Lobby decision and the GOP’s rejection of equal pay for women and even yesterday’s exceedingly lame conference focusing on “men’s issues” on the campus where I teach. If the autumn of 2014 taught us anything, it’s that men, as the saying goes, are pigs.

So I was already sensitive to this subject, and I felt anything but optimistic about the direction in which I saw Irving heading.  It seems spectacularly foolhardy to think a man has anything worth saying about rape, but to make it one of the key events of a novel had all the makings of a Hindenburg-style disaster.  Because of the way I was already attuned to the issue, I was perhaps more prepared to trace its development than any of the other problems Irving presents us with.

There’s one big reason why I think Irving’s handling of this most sensitive issue ultimately works: it’s nuanced.  That seems counterintuitive when dealing with an issue like rape, so I should probably clarify that it’s the aftermath of the rape that’s nuanced.  The crime itself is never seen as anything other than the brutal act it is, but Irving’s characters resist convenient responses.  Franny, as the victim, somehow manages to be the strongest character in the book – she refuses to see herself as a victim, claiming that while, yes, she was physically assaulted, the rapists never touched her emotionally, never got to, as she puts it, “the me in me” – while continuing to write letters to one of her assailants for years after the attack because she was in love with him at the time.

In Vienna, the family meets Susie, a fellow rape survivor (who also dresses as a bear, which is too convoluted a backstory to discuss here), who says that Franny’s response is  ridiculous.  According to Susie, Franny’s blithe refusal to see herself as a victim indicates a refusal to deal with the crime itself, and by not attacking her assailants at the time, “she sacrificed her own integrity.”  The problem with this view, John the narrator realizes, is the fact that it reflects Susie’s own refusal to acknowledge that everyone is different, everyone processes trauma differently, and that by demanding Franny handle her rape in the same way Susie dealt with hers, she’s robbing Franny of her individual authenticity:

Even before she started talking to Franny, I could see how desperately important this woman’s private unhappiness was to her, and how – in her mind – the only credible reaction to the event of rape was hers. That someone else might have responded differently to a similar abuse only meant to her that the abuse couldn’t possibly have been the same.

‘People are like that,’ Iowa Bob would have said. ‘They need to make their own worst experiences universal. It gives them a kind of support.’

And who can blame them?  It is just infuriating to argue with someone like that; because of an experience that has denied them their humanity, they go around denying another kind of humanity in others, which is the truth of human variety – it stands alongside our sameness.

And this seems to me to be what the book is all about: simultaneously glorying in human difference while also realizing the problems it causes.  Is that the definitive answer of what Irving is going for with The Hotel New Hampshire?  Probably not.  There are, as I said earlier, many other issues at play in the book, and that’s without mentioning how the book examines the idea of family: what it is, how it starts, what holds it all together, how it handles loss, and so on.  There are many angles from which a reader can make sense of The Hotel New Hampshire, but I, rightly or wrongly, made sense of it through the lens of Irving’s sensitive handling of the aftermath of rape.  And that’s because I, recently dismayed at the preponderance of misogyny in our culture, selfishly (and in defiance of the Common Core)  took ownership of my own reading.

The Hotel New Hampshire is so rich that it invites these kind of readings, and to reduce it, as I sort of have, to a book only about rape, is to do it a disservice.  The strongest thing working in its favor is that I could read it multiple times and see an entirely different story each time.

*****

Current listening:

Stevie Wonder Talking Book HIGH RESOLUTION COVER ART

Stevie Wonder – Talking Book (1972)

Advertisements

Asleep at the Wheel

standardized-tests As I was making the decision to fire this thing up again, I made a deal with myself that I would purposely stay away from education posts. There are many people out there right now doing the job way better than I can, and I’ve pretty much worn out my welcome on the topic with the friends who are most likely to read these posts. So unless I’ve got something personal to add to the conversation – you know, the conversation about how Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, Race to the Top, the Common Core State Standards, the standards’ associated high-stakes tests, etc., etc., are systematically carpet-bombing public education as we know it into oblivion – I’ll keep my mouth shut.

After tonight.

And I won’t say much.  I just want to share today’s article from Valerie Strauss’ “Answer Sheet” column in The Washington Post. It’s a chilling rundown of all the standardized tests to be taken by students this year in Miami-Dade County, Florida, in all subjects, beginning with kindergarten and lasting through grade 12.

It is, I fear, not an anomaly.

Strauss invites readers to send her any testing schedules that look similar to Miami-Dade’s, and I echo that call. It’s only by unveiling this madness to the public that we can bring about its demise.

Valerie Strauss: “A School System’s Stunning Standardized Test Schedule for 2014-15”

*****

Current listening:

Elvis punch

Elvis Costello & The Attractions – Punch the Clock (1983)

Current reading:

Laurie chains

Laurie Halse Anderson – Chains (2008)

Semi-Pseudo-Sort-Of Plan

The-public-school-assembly-line-is-broken-1tpg0by

A few days ago I wrote about the many challenges facing new teachers and considered whether, if I were a new teacher today, I’d be able to work under a similar system of strictures.  My answer was about as wishy-washy as they come: Yes, but I’d probably hate it.

I lay most of this tension at the feet of the Common Core State Standards, which have been foisted on the public and their schools as the salvation for the broken education system.  Never mind that the myth of the broken education system, like the recent fiscal cliff debacle, was created by the very people who have the most to benefit from it.  And never mind that the standards themselves were largely created by non-teachers.  And never mind that the standards constrain possibility rather than expand it.  And never mind that the standards are the foundation for the most extensive series of high-stakes tests the world has ever seen.  Never mind all of this, because now, fallacy or not, teachers are stuck with them and they’re doing the best job they can with a truly lousy situation.

The Common Core proponents, meanwhile, continue to hammer away at their supposed quality and rigor, brushing aside criticism with a frankly awe-inspiring combination of hubris and denial.  “It’s all about the kids,” they say, because we all know how much kids love standardized tests.

I’ve often considered putting together a list of all the pro-Common Core myths with an eye to debunking each of them.  Fortunately for my lazy arse, Kris Nielsen has done a much better job with it than I ever could.  On his blog he’s currently writing a three-part series about the Common Core disaster, and his just-posted second part is (or should be, at least) the gold standard in Common Core criticism.  If you’re a teacher – or interested in public education – read it, save it, and drag it out whenever someone tries to tell you the Common Core is going to save us all.  In fact, the truth is that it heralds the end of public education as we know it.

Kris Nielsen: Reality Check: This Is How Democracy Ends – Part II

*****

Current listening:
Phantogram eyelid
Phantogram – Eyelid Movies (2010)

These Things Are Sent to Try Us

educationcorporateschool

I started teaching in 1995.  I was 22, straight out of my teacher training program, and completely ignorant of what I was getting myself into.  My first assignment was four sections of 9th grade English and two sections of 10th grade English.  During my first day on campus, my department chair handed me a slim binder containing the required curriculum for my two classes.

9th grade
Semester 1:
To Kill a Mockingbird
Short story terms (exposition, conflict, climax, etc.)

Semester 2: 
Romeo and Juliet
Job prep (résumés, cover letters, interview skills, etc.)

10th grade
Semester 1:
Black Boy
Poetry

Semester 2:
Lord of the Flies
Research Paper

And that’s it.  Aside from a book room filled with class sets of supplemental texts to use alongside the required ones, that was the sum total of the curricular oversight I received as a new teacher.  In some ways, this was intimidating. Contrary to the labor-free wonderland envisioned by non-teachers, where lesson plans are apparently stolen wholesale from colleagues or divined straight from the ether and students are grateful for the opportunity to work industriously while the teacher kicks back with a mug o’ joe and the newspaper, good teaching is hard.  How would I teach and assess the required texts?  What other books would I choose to complement them?  How would I make literary terminology not just interesting but useful?  And – most importantly – what would I do when I wasn’t teaching the meager curriculum required by the district?  In an 18-week semester, Mockingbird and short story terminology represent at most eight weeks of instruction.  Ten weeks is a lot of time to get to play with.

So a lot of my first few years of teaching were spent experimenting: inventing lessons, collaborating with colleagues, trying things out and then modifying them for future classes. It was exciting.  Thanks to my teacher education program I had a solid theoretical foundation from which to draw (even if my experience with educational technology began and ended with the Apple IIE), and at my school a handful of young colleagues – and one old, cranky colleague to whom I will forever be indebted – who were just as jazzed as I was about being in the classroom and who were happy to share and experiment with me.

My first few years of teaching were terrifying – I had the same challenges as most new teachers, figuring out classroom management, motivating students, contacting parents, etc., etc. – and they were exhausting.  Twelve or fourteen hour days were the norm, and I remember collapsing in a heap on the weekends just long enough to recharge my batteries for Monday when I’d get up and do it all over again.

But more than terror and fatigue, exhilaration is the emotion that really stands out to me when I think back on that time.  How many teachers currently feel like they have the freedom to  to experiment, to play?  I was in the enviable position of actually having my administration  trust that I knew what I was doing, and feel that I should generally be left alone to do it.  How many teachers today feel that?

If the preceding paragraph feels like a transition, it is.  I currently work with pre-service English teachers in a university teacher preparation program, as well as with practicing teachers through an affiliate site of the National Writing Project.  My dissertation was on standards, assessment, and education reform.  By necessity I’ve kept a close eye on the development of the Common Core State Standards and their implementation in my current state of Georgia.  I’ve made a career of trying (and, I hope, mostly succeeding) to be an intelligent, reflective educator who provides his students with a meaningful education.

All of this build-up has been to get to this reveal: If I were a new teacher – now, in 2013 – I think the current state of education would break my spirit in no time at all.

New teachers are facing challenges unlike any I’ve seen in my lifetime, and the truly shameful thing is that these challenges are caused by people who supposedly support education.  In my conversations with new and veteran teachers alike, I hear stories of low morale, early retirement, and administrator coercion, of being made to teach to scripted curricula, of being told the Common Core doesn’t just dictate what to teach (an important enough issue by itself) but how to teach it.  If teachers are so important – as I believe they are and as the educrats behind the current reform initiatives claim they are – why in the world are they being treated as borderline incompetents who can’t be trusted with a piece of chalk?  This loss of agency – and the subsequent effect it can have on professional identity – is of paramount concern.  If we want teachers to stay in the classroom past the long-established five-year “burn out” window – becoming, in the process, career teachers who have the ability to do the most good for their students – why are we now making conditions for them so untenable?

If I were a new teacher and, instead of the thin binder of curricular objectives I was handed in 1995, I was instead given the Common Core State Standards – an exhaustive list of narrowly-defined tasks that treats the teaching of English like an autopsy – I’m not sure how long I’d last.  Take a moment, if you have the stomach, to take a look at the linked document and compare it to the short list of curricular objectives I was handed as a new teacher in 1995.  I’m not arguing that my list was superior – I could, for instance, see a poorly-prepared teacher being a total disaster with the short list – but that it allows for a kind of freedom and autonomy that I’m not sure the Common Core permits.

Is there still room for the kind of experimentation I enjoyed?  I’d like to hope there is, but the catch is that administrators have to support it.  What I’m increasingly hearing from teachers – and what is just now being reported by the press – is that this isn’t happening.  In Georgia, for example, the Department of Education Common Core frameworks that were supposedly created as “guides” have been interpreted by some site and district administrators as mandates.  The result in some schools is that there’s now an artificial 50/50 split between reading literary and informational texts and explanatory and argumentative writing.  Teachers have been told that this is what they will do, and in some cases have had texts, assignments, and assessments selected for them.

As a new teacher, I’m not sure I could do this.

Well, okay.  I could, but would I be in it for the long haul?  Would I love it?  Would I make a career of it?  And, most importantly, would I be any good at it?  I’m less certain of those answers, and I find myself increasingly saddened that my current students may not have the chance to experience the joy and excitement of finding their teaching voice in the way I did.

There’s some truly excellent writing being done by folks who are pushing back against the current education reform initiatives (people like Diane RavitchP.L. ThomasAnthony CodyStephen KrashenSusan Ohanian, and the collaborative website Schools Matter), and, personal bias aside, their work is more compelling than anything so far published by the Gates Foundation or the other pro-Common Core voices.  What they’ve all rightfully pointed out is that the biggest problem facing American public education isn’t the perceived “brokenness” of the system, apparently embodied by legions of underworked, overpaid, unionized teachers.  The problem is the shameful proliferation of poverty – and especially child poverty – and the effect it has on student learning.  Read their work, and if you find it convincing, please consider adding your voice to the growing numbers who want to see American public education preserved, not destroyed.

Current listening:
Graham a
Graham Coxon – A + E (2012)